It was disorientating to hear Jacob Rees-Mogg say in a spurt of 'reductio ad absurdum': 'I am not looking for a leader of the party and of the country who is a practicing Catholic who could alternatively be in holy orders,' thinking this would reassure the viewer that they could not be dealing with a more practical or honest man. The interviewer, Cathy Newman, repeatedly referring to Jacob as a 'man of faith', asked some good questions but none answered the one in my head. His choice of comparison: '...who could alternatively be in holy orders,' seemed more revealing than absurd.
Everyone brought up in a religious environment will have their roots entangled in it for life. It might sound a bit wacky but I was brought up with the idea that I was miraculously cured of terminal cancer because my father, a devout Catholic, prayed to a Scottish almost saint called Margaret Sinclair – an Edinburgh nun who died of tuberculosis aged 25 in 1925. In my heart, Margaret Sinclair still feels like an old much-loved friend. The miraculous nature of my recovery seemed not in any way diminished by the fact that I also received a hefty dose of radiotherapy, a then more or less experimental procedure which, aside from almost killing me, left me disabled for life.
One of a number of difficulties that grow from having any ancient religious conviction in this new age is the suspension of disbelief required to think it true in the light of the science we now know. Suspension of disbelief, the thing movie directors rely upon to keep you watching through an unconvincing plot, is fine when it comes to movies, but the suspension of disbelief required to live with a religious conviction reaches deeply into the practitioner and, by osmosis or creeping habit, spreads out to other, non-religious judgements we make from day to day. This was made obvious when this leading politician, pressed about the character of the man he supported to be next prime minister said: 'Judgement will come from a higher authority in due course.'
Every age is new but this is a different kind of new age. All over the globe, millions of security cameras, dashboard cams and phones record the world, collecting in just one year some millions
of years of human existence. Billions of humans view them and filter the images and we all get to see the best footage. We see things our ancestors had to imagine from stories told by the few who survived. We have all seen a tsunami washing over the land and carrying people and houses away; we have all seen the fireball fall from the sky and explode blowing in the windows; earthquakes and hurricanes. Some of us have seen a fertilised human egg cell divide and become a person and in doing so glimpsed the origin of ourselves, the instant where we all had our own personal big bang. We see wonders and terrible suffering, but in the millions of years of recorded images we collect every year, nothing supernatural is seen to happen. The higher authority is never seen to act.
At age nine, in 1969, I spent a little short of a year in the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital in Edinburgh having an even then primitive leg-lengthening operation that got complicated. We lived in Galashiels some 35 miles away by car but as my parents could not drive I often had no visitors. Occasionally, a Mr Gimson would appear and stand and chat to me for a while. I had no idea who he was but he was amusing and friendly and it was a relief not to be the only child in the ward without a visitor. Gimson was on the hospital board of management. He wandered the wards after meetings, visiting the unvisited and I suppose inspecting the conditions. When I showed Mr Gimson a toy slide projector given to me by my aunt, he promised to bring in a real one and show some slides.
'Akela' Margaret, a woman who might have been a nearly saint herself, in a sad attempt to pretend we were at a boy scout meeting, set-up a campfire with a red light bulb and some sticks. We watched slides of here and there, including Nepal, where Mr Gimson had been walking, but he finished with slides of sketches he made when he was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma. A camp where the prisoners were used as slaves to build a railway. We saw his pencil drawings of emaciated soldiers standing hopelessly around and sketches of improvised medical equipment. It sounds like a grim thing to show in a boys ward, but we were enthralled. He was an instant hero. He had been imprisoned and tortured just like us.
Shortly before I was due to go home, Mr Gimson drove me in his vintage Alvis car to the artificial ski slope on the Pentland Hills which I could see from my hospital bed. He had the operators stop the ski lift so I could be loaded on in my waist-high iron calliper. We got off at the top to sit and look at the view.
Years later, I learned that had he been found with his drawings he would have been executed on the spot, without the use of a bullet, so he sealed them in a jar which he buried with the dead. In 1945, the graves were disinterred, the pictures found and returned to him. Some are on the Imperial War Museum
website. It's worth looking at them if only to think of the journey the image made from its origin to your eye. There is a reason I am bringing him into this chain of thought.
Hearing Jacob Rees-Mogg decline to judge the personal attributes of the now prime minister left me wondering what other things he declined to judge. Did he decline to judge seeing the European Union as anything other than a financial enterprise for the benefit of traders? Did he decline to judge seeing it as the fantastic construction it is, disproving the Tower of Babel, where people of many languages do work together to build great things, the greatest thing being that the ordinary work they do, they do in peace.
Mr Gimson, I never called him anything else, had a great sense of humour, rarely replying without inserting a subtle joke. Years later he told me when climbing into my Nissan Bluebird, that he was thinking of buying a Japanese car. He wondered if I thought them reliable. His delivery was so dry it took days to sink in. In fact he drove the same green Alvis classic car till he could not drive and one day I saw it broken down at Leith Links. I had to stop and wait with him, surprised to find myself sitting in that old cracked leather front seat. He told me he was taking the car to the nursing home, cutting the story short as if to imply that the car itself was to be admitted. In fact, he was going to visit someone because, like me, they needed company.
Somehow we got talking about religion. His parents were Christian Scientists, I think he said, but he did not have time for it himself. 'Are you an atheist then?' I asked. As verbatim as I remember, he replied: 'Yes... well I might say agnostic so as not to offend some.' Looking with watery eyes through the windscreen of this car going nowhere, he went on: 'Certainly, I do not think there can be a loving God. No. Not in the Christian sense. No loving God would allow that. All those young men?' He never said what 'that' was and I'm sure he said something funny afterwards to cheer me up, but I can't remember what. My mind was occupied with the thought that he was undoubtably correct.
People, yes those guys, don't like being told their religion is not true. They are often offended by just the suggestion, becoming irritated as children do when interrupted in the middle of a great game with friends. Suddenly they see that their bed is not really a ship sailing the sea, it's just a bed, while the religious person sees that their life is not some great game they are playing with God, but is just a life. I was not in the least offended by what Mr Gimson said that day. If anything, I felt a slight sense of relief. A return to reality.
This was not a scientist telling me there was no evidence for the existence of God – an explanation I was never satisfied with – this was a judge, for that was Mr Gimson's day job, sheriff principal of Grampian Highland and Islands from 1972 to 1982. He was a man I knew to be as good a man as a man can be, who risked execution to smuggle out the truth for no reason other than that people should know it. This man was telling me he had seen positive evidence that a loving God does not exist.
This meant accepting my miraculous cure was no miracle and the truth about that is a whole other story. What is important here is that as I let my religion go, aged 30-something, the suspension of disbelief it required lifted like a veil and I found myself questioning everything – science included – in a new way. In a way Jacob Rees-Mogg is currently unable to.
I have no objection to the idea of God. In fact I love it. The God's Eye View of ourselves, imagining that somehow every thing, every thought, every act in the universe is being observed by some universal consciousness is empowering and exciting and inspiring. Like imagining an aerial photograph of life. We could probably do with more people thinking about things, philosophically, from God's point of view, but following a religion is another thing altogether.
Religion provides a formula for right and wrong and a whole lot more. Religion, when evoked by politicians, is the use or rather abuse
of God to enforce a desired order on society and justify action. Dismissing Cathy Newman's question with 'judgement will come from a higher authority in due course,' is a blatant example of using religion to do just that.
Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize quote: 'Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness,' was ridiculed for being plagiarised, but really it should be ridiculed for being nothing other than a shallow disgraceful piece of prejudice. Far from being bitter I am grateful, not to the almighty but to circumstances. Grateful that I have managed to grasp a decent understanding of what is going on in the world around me without a supernatural belief fogging my view. When Louis Armstrong comes on the radio singing What a Wonderful World
, I get that same rush from the truth of it. There might not be a loving God, but there are loving people. The beauty is just as intense while the horror makes much more sense.
Returning from holiday in France this summer, driving to reduce our carbon footprint, we stopped at the 'Mémorial de Caen' in Normandy – 'commemorating World War II and the Battle for Caen'. World leaders, including our own defeated one, gathered there a month or so before for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The €20 per person to get in the door seemed tastelessly expensive and in the gift shop it seemed more celebration than commemoration.
As we went around, I found myself doing that thing of starting to read ahead as parents do when they begin to wonder if an exhibit is age appropriate. While my daughter looked at a rusty gun, I looked over her head at the next item which was an almost life-sized photograph of a girl not much older than her standing oddly with her head tilted to one side, like in a contemporary dance pose. It took me a while to see she was being hanged by a uniformed man who seemed to be pulling on a rope. My voice cracked as I struggled to explain to my daughter what it was we were looking at.
I thought at first about the girl being hanged. Her name was Volodia Shcherbatsevich. She was 16. Only recently have I started to try to think about that man pulling on the rope. What was he thinking? Did he ever imagine some years before he would one day be hanging a 16-year-old girl in public in order to impress upon the local population who governed the country? It seems unlikely. He might have had a daughter himself. I don't know.
We do know he grew up in a time of great austerity, a time when many people had lost faith in traditional political leaders spawning new parties left and right. Ever so gradually, decent politicians vanished from the scene, giving up or bullied out. A time when tolerance and intolerance grew weirdly side by side until intolerance burst into action as an alliance of oddball, arrogant and contemptuous politicians with peculiar beliefs grabbed the reins and refused to let go. His moral compass moved more like the hour hand of a clock, imperceptibly so he was unable to see it was moving in the wrong direction. Perhaps he thought there was a formula for right and wrong and by that formula this was right. It would never happen in this new age.
It is the job of every politician to judge their leader as fully as they can in every dimension. Big decisions that politicians make are often a reflection of their personality and declining to judge the personality of the prime minister is an act of wilful blindness, in this case justified by a religious conviction. While Jacob Rees-Mogg might think that his religious view does not impact on his judgement in other areas of life, from my experience I am quite sure that it does
. This is perhaps one reason that he has failed to judge the EU, riddled with all the imperfections of its builders, as one of the greatest peace agreements of all time.